Unclear on the basic concept: White House Press Secretary on Gulf oil spill

As President Obama made his tour of the Gulf region on Monday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One that BP would move forward in creating an escrow account to ensure, “that all the people who are affected by BP’s oil spill are made whole.”
from politicsdaily.com, June 14, 2010.

What kind of a disconnected nitwit can use the phrase “made whole” about this? Believe it or not, there are some things money can’t change. All the money in the world cannot turn back the clock and make the ocean clean, bring back to life the millions of dead creatures—the tiny ones we never see also suffered, also died, and from our myopic human standpoint they are important because they’re part of the web of life that makes shrimp for us to catch and eat.

This isn’t “just words”, this is a perversion of thinking that is at the root of our modern lostness. Minds so separated from the real “buzzing blooming confusion” of life, that they are hardly here in the same world with the oiled pelicans and the devastated fishermen. Yet like aliens from some distant galaxy they walk among us and their power is immense, to act in our world, control what we know, run our government like a puppet theatre.

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A dead jelly fish floats in oil in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

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Hermit crabs struggle to cross a patch of oil on a barrier island near East Grand Terre Island, LA. AP photo from Telegraph (UK).

What matters most to BP

This’ll fix things:

As for BP, it has taken steps to beef up its PR operation, in an attempt to limit the damage to its reputation. The company has recruited as head of the firm’s US media relations Anne Womack-Kolton, the former press secretary to Dick Cheney.

from this morning’s UK Guardian

True, the company’s public relations since the explosion have been terrible: suppressing and lying about things that will become known eventually anyway, and ridiculous efforts to play down the seriousness of the oil spill. Tony Hayward, BP CEO, “told Fox News sister network Sky News on Tuesday [May 18] that he is largely unconcerned:

I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest. It is impossible to say and we will mount, as part of the aftermath, a very detailed environmental assessment as we go forward. We’re going to do that with some of the science institutions in the U.S. But everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest.

After BP has squandered any potential public credibility, the most silver-tongued revolving-door lobbyist-cum-government appointee (such as Ms. Womack-Kolton) will be hard pressed to reverse the tide. We all know which tide they really truly care most about, when it comes to the tide of financial-world and public opinion, vs. the tide of oil.

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Young heron dying in oil-soaked marsh. Photo by GERALD HERBERT / AP. Copyright by photographer and AP, not used with permission.

If Babbage HAD built his “Difference Engine”

Here’s a funny comics-version, from 2D goggles. Actually it is about mathematician Ada Byron Lovelace (1815 – 1852), but we all know that women never get top billing!

The comic was made for “Ada Lovelace Day”, to promote a film (to be offered to local stations by PBS) about this remarkable woman, and the film-makers need our help:

letters of support from people who have been influenced in some way by Ada and who are willing to help publicise the film, be a part of the interactive website, perhaps show the film, or contribute in any other way.

Rosemarie says, “I need letters from people stating how important a film like Ada is and how they through their networks can help to publicize the film. It would be great if the women have organizations they work or belong to. If they are software developers or computer experts, this would be great. It would be best if they were Americans, as the NSF (National Science Foundation) is American.”

If you’re not American, letters would still be useful of course! The deadline is the end of October.

Please write to:

Rosemarie Reed
On the Road Productions International, Inc.
310 Greenwich Street, 21F
New York, NY 10013
Or email Rosemarie directly, rreed40148@aol.com.

After some thought, I decided to write a letter based on my experiences giving books to kids at the food pantry, and the unabated gender gap I see in kids’ interest in science and math. Sure, the older kids are computer users, but computers are fun personal devices; they still display an aversion to math and science, especially the non-biological sciences. A few boys get drawn in by technology, but I don’t see it in girls. [I have a small sample size, I admit, and it is a rural area.]

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron (his only legitimate child); she married a nobleman, and was part of the social whirl of that class, dancing and entertaining. [Photo below from Wikipedia]

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Wikipedia tells us that

During a nine-month period in 1842-43, Lovelace translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include (Section G), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine ever been built. Based on this work, Lovelace is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program.
However, biographers debate the extent of her original contributions. Dorothy Stein, author of Ada: A Life and a Legacy, contends that the programs were mostly written by Babbage himself. Babbage wrote the following on the subject, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1846):

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

The level of impact of Lovelace on Babbage’s engines is difficult to resolve due to Babbage’s tendency not to acknowledge (either orally or in writing) the influence of other people in his work. However, Lovelace was certainly one of the few people who fully understood Babbage’s ideas and created a program for the Analytical Engine, indeed there are numerous clues that she might also have suggested the usage of punched cards for Babbage’s second machine since her notes in Menabrea’s memoir suggest she deeply understood the Jaquard’s Loom as well as the Analytical Engine. Her prose also acknowledged some possibilities of the machine which Babbage never published, such as speculation that “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”.

The Difference Engine becomes reality after 150 years

Babbage never built his mechanical computer, but the London Science Museum did make a working version. It was finished in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth.

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A view of “some of the number wheels and the sector gears between columns”

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Difference Engine model photos source.

Ada Lovelace, “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace”, gave birth to three children (the firstborn was named Byron), and died at 37 of uterine cancer and being bled by her doctors.

Let’s support that film, with letters or emails to demonstrate demand for stations to show it! Here’s the email again, rreed40148@aol.com.

More about girls being turned off to math and science

Feminist Chemists cites a 2008 study by the American Mathematical Society:

In elementary school, girls do as well as or better in math than boys. In middle school, girls with an inclination for math begin to lose interest and fall behind, mostly due to peer pressure and societal expectations. Throughout middle and high school, social stigma and lack of appropriately challenging educational opportunities for the mathematically precocious becomes a hard reality in most American schools. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, often camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

A study published in June by the National Academy of Sciences found

“It’s not an innate difference in math ability between males and females,” says Janet Mertz, a UW-Madison professor of oncology and one of the authors of the article that analyzes and summarizes recent data on math performance at all levels in the United States and internationally. “There are countries where the gender disparity in math performance doesn’t exist at either the average or gifted level. These tend to be the same countries that have the greatest gender equality.”

Gender bias and expectations are not the only thing we have to worry about. It’s not just girls––boys are losing interest too, according to the AMS research:

”The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys,” says Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of oncology and the senior author of the study. “The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here.”

[NOTE: While Janet Mertz was one of the authors on each study, the PNAS and AMS studies are two different projects. The latter, published Oct. 10 in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, was a comprehensive analysis of decades of data on students identified as having profound ability in math (Science News Oct. 13, 2008). The other study was published June 1, 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy. It looked at US and international data on students of all levels of ability, to answer three key questions: “Do gender differences in math performance exist in the general population? Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented? Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent? The answers, according to the Wisconsin researchers, are no, no and yes.” (Science News June 2, 2009).

You may remember the remarks of Lawrence Summers in 2005 (he was then President of Harvard, and is now an economic adviser to President Obama), to the effect that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. These two studies would support the conclusion that if innate differences do influence women’s lack of success in these fields, the differences are not in mathematical ability. Maybe we should look at “innate differences” in aggressiveness and willingness to withstand unduly competitive or even hostile treatment from colleagues and superiors. Or at insecurity and discomfort, innate or not, which arise in male academics and administrators when females display ability, competence, and promise. A few decades ago women rarely appeared in symphony orchestras unless they played the harp; auditions behind screens changed that! Did our musical ability transform itself overnight? Probably not. ]

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[Photo from another good article on the AMS study]

Send an email for Ada and our kids, and consider how you yourself might interact with kids about math and science. Take a trip to the Science Museum if you are fortunate enough to live near one, read a book together, in general don’t act as if math and science are boring geek fare. Even if a lot of it is beyond you, as higher math seems to be beyond me, that doesn’t have to be true for the kids you know. Since I was in college, math has become much more important in biological sciences, ecology, even social sciences like history, so if I were a history major today I would probably need to take at least an introductory statistics class.

We all need to model a respect and interest for learning, to the kids around us. Kids start out as voracious learners: have you tried to learn another language lately? Hard, right? Babies do it, and young kids pick up second languages easily. They’re always learning, not just skills and processes but attitudes too, so let’s not convey bad attitudes about learning, reading, thinking!

Threshing grain at the historic farm

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Here’s the old-style threshing of the grain at Hanley Historic Farm, Oregon; the beautiful golden “stooks” of gathered and bundled grain stalks appeared in an earlier post.

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These stooks of hand-cut wheat, composed of bundles each tied with a stalk of wheat, sat out for weeks drying, and waiting for the Harvest Day Event on September 4, when the draft horse enthusiasts and old ag machinery collectors would join forces.

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First the big placid draft horses made their way down the field, stopping to let workers with hay-rakes pitch (that’s “pitch” as in “pitchfork”) the stooks up onto the wagon, seen in the first picture. Once the wagon’s full, it heads back to the “home” end of the field.

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There, the old threshing machine awaits, attended by half a dozen or more other people who will fork the grain from the wagon onto a moving belt.

But first, line up the wagon next to the working area.

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Then the horses are unhitched and led away; I thought perhaps this particular team did not like the noise of the machine, which was considerable. In 1900 or whenever this machine was made, a farmer’s team would probably be accustomed to the machine after a couple of acres had been worked, and would wait–––or two wagons could be used, hitching the team to an empty wagon to continue collecting the grain while the full wagon was threshed.

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The entire machine is long, with belt-driven parts to move the unthreshed grain into the whirling blades that knock the grain off the stalks. The next step separates grain from chopped straw or chaff.

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It may be a machine, but it is fed one fork of grain at a time.

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Streams of grain and chaff are blown through long pipes: the chaff into a pile, the grain into heavy cloth bags.

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As on every farm in the history of the world, there’s work for kids old enough to know the routine.

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The filled bags are hand-sewn shut.

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Once these threshing machines came into use, horses provided the power for only some of the work. The thresher itself ran from a steam, or later gasoline, engine powering the main belt. This day, a more modern machine was used for the Power Take-Off (PTO) to the thresher.

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Here you can see the power belt, and the chopping teeth that actually do the threshing.

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Although the chaff is just being blown onto a pile in the background here, it is not a waste material, but would be used for bedding in stalls during the winter. Mucked-out straw would be used for fertilizing fields or maybe the kitchen garden area. These days, commercially produced wheat straw is used for decorative interior panels, making ethanol, soil amendment, animal feed (treated with urea, and with nutrients added, yuk), paper, and packaging. Many new uses are being examined. And of course, it’s still good for animal bedding.

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Our view of early machine threshing on this day didn’t show what hard work it would have been, when many acres of grain had to be gotten in before the weather changed, when teams of horses brought a continuous supply of grain to the people feeding it to the machine, and the labor of bending to sew bags and then tote them away never stopped. But, unlike a lot of physical work in the industrial age, it was not what you did 50 weeks a year. There’s a pride in getting it done

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and those too young to take part look on, eager to be old enough.

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And when the belt stops moving, the old hands find a spot in the shade.

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Stooks and sheaves at an historic farm

At Hanley Historic Farm near Jacksonville, Oregon, we came upon a wheatfield that had been cut and stacked, and it was a beautiful sight.

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These aren’t just bunches of cut wheat tossed up into heaps like our idea of a haystack; they’re carefully constructed of sheaves, or bundles,

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and each sheaf is self-tied with wheatstraw.

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This takes us back a hundred and fifty years or so: before mechanical harvesters and threshers, grain was cut with scythes, made into stacks in the field to dry, heaved up onto wagons with pitchforks, and then threshed and winnowed to separate the wheat (or barley or oats or millet) from the chaff and straw. Hot, dusty, backbreaking work.

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Winslow Homer (1836-1910), The Veteran in a New Field, 1865 (source)

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(source; artist unknown.)

Think about cutting acres of wheat this way, stopping every 20 minutes or so to sharpen the scythe blade which had to be razor sharp so that the cut wheat would fall neatly.

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Heinrich Bürkel (1802-1869), Loading The Hay-Wagon [and hurrying to beat that rainstorm!] (cropped for this use; entire painting here)

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I’m curious how this wheat will be threshed and winnowed. Historic methods for threshing included having oxen walk round in circles stepping on the grain to break it (mentioned in the Bible: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” Deuteronomy 25:4) and using a flail,

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Source

I’ll see what I can find out from the farm, which is run by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

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An early warning system for health threats: the invaluable work of ProMED

ProMED Mail is one of the most important information resources on the net, and most of us have never heard of it. It’s an email list which describes itself as a “global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of infectious diseases and acute exposures to toxins that affect human health, including those in animals and in plants grown for food or animal feed”.

Unlike the official clearinghouses run by WHO and CDC, ProMED is, in its own words, “open to all sources” and its reports are freely available to us all. ProMED was first to raise concern about the aggressive respiratory disease spreading in China in 2003, which became known as SARS. Before the Chinese authorities had permitted their officials to report the disease to WHO, Catherine Strommen, an elementary school teacher in Fremont, California, spotted a post in an international teachers’ chat room from a concerned teacher in China describing “an illness that started like a cold, but killed its victims in days”.

Alarmed, Strommen emailed an old neighbor and friend, Stephen Cunnion, M.D., a retired Navy physician and epidemiologist who now lived in Maryland. A practical, no-nonsense man, Cunnion started searching the web. With no success, he tried a new tack—sending an email to ProMED-mail, a global electronic reporting system for outbreaks of emerging infections and toxins. After quoting Strommen’s missive, he asked: “Does anyone know anything about this problem?”

The tiny ProMED staff conducted its own web search. It, too, came up empty-handed. On February 10, it sent out to tens of thousands of subscribers a posting headed: “PNEUMONIA – CHINA (GUANGDONG): RFI,” or Request for Information.

Thus did the world first learn of SARS, the new and deadly infection that would kill 774 people and infect 8,000 in 27 countries.

From an article by Madeline Drexler in The Journal of Life Sciences.

H1N1 Reports (Swine-avian-human Influenza A)

To keep up on H1N1 flu [I agree with the pig farmers, “swine flu” sounds like your big risk is getting it from pigs and pork, not human sneezes and handshakes] check the ProMED main page. While all the media is now frothing over with “news” about this disease, some of it sounds as reliable as alien abduction accounts. ProMED is timely and scientifically accurate but understandable by non-biologists. It includes valuable, and interesting, commentary on reports and questions: “this has been reported, but here’s what we don’t know, or here are local factors that must be considered in evaluating it”.

What ProMED does

ProMED is a program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases which began in 1994. It does not simply print whatever comes in—this is an extremely well-moderated list. A group of specialists checks and filters the reports, seeks more information from local sources and other experts, and provides judicious commentary. This group also “scans newspapers, the internet, health department and government alerts, and other information sources for inklings that an infectious disease, perhaps not yet reported widely, is threatening animal, plant and/or human health.”

I think I first signed up to receive the digests back when “mad cow disease” was emerging, and have since used ProMED to follow diseases such as anthrax and Ebola.
A topic of interest to me recently concerns outbreaks of measles and mumps in Western nations due to falling rates of vaccination. And as a former zookeeper I keep up on diseases of wildlife and zoo animals, including the fungal disease threatening whole populations of wild bats in the Eastern US. ProMED also covers plant diseases (mostly of crops).

All of this, infectious diseases of humans, wildlife, and crops, is of greatly increased urgency because climate change, global transport, and destruction of wild areas all lead to the spread of familiar diseases to new locales and the emergence of “new” diseases previously only found in remote wild areas. With regard to contaminants and toxins, governments are unable to deal with this effectively due to the political power of corporations and lack f oversight in producing countries. ProMED can’t make your food and furniture non-toxic, but it can sound alarms that might otherwise be silenced.References to a topic’s prior appearances on the list are attached to current reports, and archives are easy to access. Editions in French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish are now available.

“Each posting is limited to 25 KB bandwidth—to ensure that it slips through an old-fashioned dial-up modem in the most remote areas of the world (where new infectious threats tend to smolder). ‘We use technology that was state-of-the-art in 1994. We use email—plain-text email at that. We don’t use fancy fonts,’ Madoff says. ‘The power of the Internet is its ubiquity and speed; it’s not necessarily in all the neat things you can do.’ [from Drexler’s article cited above]

You can subscribe here.

Toxins and contaminants

ProMED also collects, evaluates, and disseminates reports of health problems related to toxins and contamination of food and medicines. These can be quite unusual. For example, the case of the toxic leather sofas in Britain:

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Photo: Effect on leg of reaction to toxic chemical contained in sofas. From BBC.

A judge [in the UK] is expected to order several retailers to pay millions of
pounds to people who suffered burns and rashes from faulty leather
sofas….

More than 1600 people claim to have been affected by the problem. Tens
of thousands more people could have burns not yet traced to sofas.
The High Street stores, along with 11 others, may have to pay more
than 10 million pounds [USD 14.3 million] in compensation and legal
costs, the shoppers’ lawyers say. They claim that makes it “the
largest group compensation claim ever seen in British Courts.”

The sofas, which were manufactured in China, were packed with sachets
of an anti-mould chemical called dimethyl fumarate to stop them from
going moldy during storage in humid conditions.

Commonly known as DMF, the toxic, fine white powder has been used by
some manufacturers to protect leather goods like furniture and shoes
from mold. Even very small amounts can be harmful.

One sofa customer, who is well aware of the health problems caused by
her purchase, is a customer who bought a leather sofa suite from
Argos in April 2007. Almost a year later, she started to notice a
rash developing on her arms and legs. After a few weeks, her skin
started flaking off. She says the irritation was so bad, she was off
work for 2 months. This customer was seen by more than a dozen
doctors, who couldn’t work out what was causing the rash.

She said: “It was very, very painful; I couldn’t sleep at night; I
couldn’t walk about; I couldn’t drive; every time I did walk about,
the skin would fall off, and I would leave a trail of it, therefore,
I couldn’t go to work.”

Reliable histories of outbreaks/events

ProMED doesn’t just present breaking news and requests for additional reports; it frequently publishes very useful summaries of what’s been learned, and what action governmental agencies have taken. For example, “Melamine contaminated food products – Worldwide ex China” and “Prion disease Update 2009 (01)” (Mad Cow Disease and its human infectious disease, the fatal “variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease”.

Supporting ProMED

Believe it or not, ProMED is supported by individuals, with not a penny of funding from any government. That means they are independent (remember the movie Jaws, where the city council wants to suppress news of the shark attacks?) and fast to react. They sift a lot of news from all sorts of sources, put out calls for more information, and disseminate news in a responsible way.

If the work of this group seems like something you’d like to support, here’s your chance. They’re having a brief Spring fundraising campaign. To quote their email,

Your gift funds quick information every day – The economical, low-tech computer programs we use enable us to speed ProMED to your mailboxes, to post it online where anyone can find it, , and to provide the administrative services (accounting, office space, cell phone connections, etc.) required to support a small, agile worldwide enterprise.

ProMED-mail reaches over 50,000 public health officials, students, journalists, agricultural specialists, infectious disease professionals and others around the globe. Because it is free, subscribers in more than 187 countries have an equal opportunity to know when a disease outbreak occurs — and can spring into action when necessary to prevent or minimize its spread.

If the Spring campaign is past, here’s the main donations page.